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  • The Moment of Obligation in ExperienceAuthor(s): Henry G. Bugbee, Jr.Source: The Journal of Religion, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Jan., 1953), pp. 1-15Published by: The University of Chicago PressStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1199727 .Accessed: 20/03/2013 01:04

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    Volume XXXIII JANUARY 1953 Number I


    T IS paper attempts an interpreta- tion of experience, concerned to understand what it may mean to

    be obligated. Each of the three sections of the paper incorporates a leading theme. In the first section we shall pres- ently develop the theme of respect, analyzing respect as involving acknowl- edgment of a ground of action which can obligate us. The second section deals with the willingness characteristic of the moment of obligation in experience, in its intimate connection with personal in- tegrity. The final section of the paper analyzes humility as a condition of obli- gation, briefly relating this theme to the conduct of ethical inquiry, and also sug- gesting the possible independence of hu- mility from humiliation.

    Underlying the treatment of these themes is the controlling idea of a ground which can endow action with conclusive justification. I think such a ground can become immanent and clear to us as a matter of experience; and experience in

    which it does so is what I have in mind in speaking of the moment of obligation. Yet I shall try to suggest certain funda- mental qualifications about forming an adequate idea of such a ground. For a ground of action to become immanent and clear in experience, it does not seem necessary to have formed a clear and ex- plicit idea of such a ground. Nor do the immanence and clarity of the ground seem to make an explicit idea of it easy to formulate and convey.

    The procedure of this paper is based on the conviction that ultimate justifica- tion to be found in acting is primarily a deliverance of experience in acting and that thought cannot enable us to take command of the justifying, as it might if the justifying could be made fully and directly explicit for thought. Though I shall use the terms "spirit" and "the good" in speaking of that which can obli- gate us, I shall seek to define them only as they are used in the thematic analysis of experience to follow. This entire paper is a fabric of words woven to catch some- thing of the meaning of "the good." And the method of inquiry on which we will be depending itself reflects the conviction that the good is essentially implicit, in that thought cannot seize upon the good and hold it before the mind, as it may ob- jects of empirical knowledge. The meth- od accordingly pursued is one of experi-

    * Henry G. Bugbee, Jr., is assistant professor of philosophy in Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Born in New York City, he was educated at Princeton University (A.B. 1936) and the University of California at Berkeley (M.A. 1940 and Ph.D. 1947). From 1942 to 1946 he was in the armed service in the United States Naval Re- serve. He has held teaching positions in the Uni- versity of Nevada and at Stanford University. Dr. Bugbee has been a member of the Harvard faculty since 1948.


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  • 2 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION ential reflection, as distinct from empiri- cal investigation yielding knowledge of objects; it is further distinct from either linguistic analysis or abstract "analysis of concepts." In the course of this paper I will attempt to suggest some aspects of this method, such as its peculiarly retro- spective orientation. But for the most part I shall not attempt to discuss the method as such. No doubt its affinity with a phenomenological approach to philosophical problems, and with the method of such current existentialist thought as that of Gabriel Marcel, will become apparent. Mainly, our problem will be to think objectively about our ex- perience of acting without changing the subject, that is, without turning this ex- perience into a shuffle of objects.

    I If there is any attitude of which we are

    capable that invites consideration as nonarbitrary, it would seem to be that of respect. On what is respect founded? How are we capable of it, and what does our capacity for respect seem to involve? We may begin by drawing a suggestion of our answer to these questions from concrete instances of respect of para- mount importance as they arise in inter- personal situations. Certainly when the actions of another person command our profoundest respect, we may find estab- lished in such experience a very distinct and fundamental communion and loy- alty between ourselves and that person. When communion is so established, our loyalty would not seem oriented ulti- mately to the achievement of the individ- ual, to the talent or skill displayed in his action, or to the pleasure of men which his action may occasion. Only a spirit which speaks through his action and achievement to its kindred in ourselves seems capable of summoning our loyalty;

    and, when this occurs, a moment of obli- gation is indeed realized. We experience, at least fleetingly, that which we can af- firm and serve, that which can claim us; and, since the embodiment of spirit in action always seems unique and original, we may not expect to read how its de- mands upon us may be fulfilled in terms of a set and predetermined behavioral pattern, subject to imitation.

    It would seem, in fact, that we tend to respect whatever in the focus of our at- tention provides us with a purchase for a fuller and freer assumption of responsi- bility, whatever can be a key to original personal commitment in action. Thus a craftsman may respect his tools and his material even to the point of revering them.' Thus we tend to respect, too, the elementary conditions under which en- deavor may be ordered and disciplined in a way indissolubly connected with its be- coming free; such may be the respect of an empirical scientist for the procedures of experimental method or of a poet for the restrictions of versification. Again, a man would be but a casual seafarer or mountaineer if he did not come to respect the sea, or the mountains, at times even to the point of luminous clarity.

    In general, respect seems to involve the focus of attention either on that which can inspirit us and call out our aspiration or on that which can offer us the resistance, the mettling condition, or the medium upon which the clarification and embodiment of spirit through action depends. Of course these phases of re- spect tend to intermingle, as when a man raising a crop may look upon his fields, finding them good, and then move in a vein of unbroken contemplation to meet the demands of a day's work. Thus the fields call out his love and exact his ef- fort, and each of these phases of his car- ing for them permeates the other.

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    I believe everything is to be gained from seeing that the mode of regard of which we are capable, when it attains to the stature of respect, is not confined to instances of regard for persons and their actions. Even when our attention is fo- cused on persons and their actions, we may confirm the fact that the possibility of respect is essentially conditioned by our capacity for respecting; for, unless we are prepared to harbor respect, actions which may be eminently worthy of it simply fail to elicit it. Often it is only as remembered that actions we have wit- nessed, then, and for the first time, elicit our respect. Again, we may revive the memory of persons in action whom we can remember having respected and yet find ourselves presently incapable of re- living that respect for them. For capacity to respect is our ultimate strength, and we are not always strong; nor do we seem to invest ourselves with strength at will.

    I would not deny for a moment that there is something eminently personal in the capacity for respect; I would only free the conception of that capacity from the supposition that it necessarily in- volves the focus of attention on persons and their actions; for then we may see that respect is not primarily distinguished as an interest in persons but rather as a mode of interest of which persons are capable. To be exact, our regard for any- thing approaches respect in so far as our interest in that thing becomes inspirited in a way qualifying our mode of interest as disinterested. It seems exactly the spirit in which a person is able to take things and act in relation to them that is crucial in his capacity to regard them in the manner of respect. Where respect is for things other than the actions of per- sons, it is especially clear that it involves a profound and active commitment of the person in his relation with whatever he

    can regard with r